Editor’s Note: This post is part 7 in “The Enchanted World of Tantra,” a blog series by Sandra Anderson exploring the many dimensions of the tantric path.
Picture a set of nesting Russian babushka dolls. The yoga tradition depicts a human being in just this way, with multiple bodies or layers of existence. In the simplest model we simultaneously occupy three interpenetrating bodies—the physical body (sthula sharira), the subtle body (sukshma sharira), and the causal body (karana sharira). Together these three (or five in the kosha model described in the Upanishads) determine our generic as well as individual characteristics and provide a guide to yoga practice.
The physical body is a familiar point of reference, but you may wonder what is the subtle body, exactly? What in the world is the causal body? The questions are important first of all because the intention and potential of even the physical practice of asana is to affect the subtle and causal bodies. Understanding the three bodies can help us clarify our purpose and maximize the benefit of our practices.
The subtle and causal bodies are more foundational and influential than the physical body.
The second important revelation of the model is this: although the three bodies are interpenetrating and affect each other, the subtle and causal bodies are more foundational and influential than the physical body. The more subtle aspects affect the grosser aspects more profoundly than vice versa. For us that means that a change at the subtle level has much more far-reaching consequences than a change at the grosser level, and this law has far-reaching consequences for practice.
But first, let’s look at an overview of the three bodies. The karana sharira, or causal body (think “the body that causes”) is the blueprint for the subtle and physical bodies. Samskaras and vasanas (deeply ingrained inclinations) that motivate and shape this life reside in the causal body and provide the template for our physical and mental traits, including our gender and other genetically determined features like whether we have brown or blue eyes and curly or straight hair, as well as our intellectual tendencies, like our deep-rooted preference for poetry or a disinclination to study medicine.
Executing the blueprint of the causal body, the sukshma sharira, or subtle body underlies and directs the physical body through the energies of the mind. The life force (prana), the sensory potentials (tanmatras), and mental capacities like cognition, discrimination, memory, imagination, emotion, and self-identity are all part of the subtle body. To better understand the sukshma sharira, consider the dream state of consciousness, which is dominated by the subtle body. The physical body, if present at all in the dream state, is an image—we do not have the usual waking-state awareness of it. Our dreams reference experiences and impressions we can trace to our waking state, but also impressions and experiences from parts of our mind that are unknown to us or normally inaccessible in our waking state, like deeply buried anger and grievances or fears.
The sukshma sharira connects the physical and causal bodies, giving expression and form to the most subtle and least differentiated dimension of ourselves in the causal body (karana sharira). It is through the subtle and physical bodies that the seeds inherent in the causal body bear fruit.
Shaping and Directing Our Life Experience
One of the links between the physical body and the subtle body is the senses. Life in the world is demarcated by our senses, which in the yoga tradition include not just the familiar cognitive senses (smell, taste, sight, touch, and hearing) but also the five active senses (excretion, reproduction, locomotion, manipulation, and speech). These senses all arise through five sensory potentials (tanmatras) in the subtle body. One of the mind’s functions, also part of the subtle body, is to interpret sensory information from the cognitive senses and coordinate the activities of the active senses: We smell freshly baked bread and head to the kitchen to find butter and a knife; we smell a skunk, cover our faces and find an alternative route to the bus stop. Ideally, the mind interprets incoming information without distortion and directs mental and physical responses for the benefit of our total well-being. However, we are all familiar with the struggle to eat just one potato chip, and many of the practices of yoga like regulating diet, speech, or sex are designed to empower the aspect of the mind that keeps the activities of the senses in proper perspective.
In addition to cognition, mental capacities like discrimination, reason, emotion, memory, and imagination are also part of the subtle body, as are our intentions, belief system, ego identity, desires, and cravings. These less gross, non-physical aspects of being are directing the momentum of our life and shaping our life experience. For example, if our bedrock belief is that we are an unlovable person, we will respond to a hug or praise with rigid resistance, unable to feel happy and content even when presented with loving kindness.
Ideally, the mind interprets incoming information without distortion and directs mental and physical responses for the benefit of our total well-being.
As yoga practitioners, this means we would like to create change in the subtle and causal bodies for more powerful and lasting healing and awakening. This is fertile territory for the big guns of yoga practice: meditation, visualization, contemplation, self-reflection, devotion, and reframing our understanding of the nature of reality. However, we can also empower practices which appear to be mostly physical to engage the subtle body as well as the physical body. Our yoga practices can be executed with the intention of affecting all three bodies—physical, subtle, and causal—regardless of the main focus of the practice. When we practice a forward bend with the intention to clear the mind, and direct full awareness to our body and breath, we not only stretch the hamstrings but also balance the nervous system and quiet the mind.
Working with the Subtle Body in Yoga
Many of the familiar practices and language of modern yoga are based on the anatomy of the subtle body from the perspective of tantra philosophy and practice. Concepts like nadis (currents of prana constituting an energy field), chakras (psycho-somatic centers), and kundalini (a deeper dimension of consciousness) provide maps of the subtle body and let us understand how to work with the subtle body to achieve whatever our intention may be—physical or emotional healing, or awakening to the deeper, essential nature of self.
With practice, knowledge of subtle anatomy can help us understand and experience where and how we are disconnected, blocked, or dissipated. Our conscious attention is mostly directed outward during waking hours, so the first goal is to cultivate an inward-facing awareness—a sensitivity to the subtle body.
The most concrete expression of the subtle body is the breath. Cultivating sensitivity to the movement and touch of the breath is a quick and powerful way of getting in touch with the subtle body and expanding our self-awareness. The pattern and rhythm of the breath is indicative of the state of the field of the life force. Erratic, chaotic breathing indicates an erratic, chaotic flow of prana and a dissonant, chaotic subtle body. A rhythmic, smooth, and relaxed breath accompanies a well-integrated, properly functioning subtle body and a clear, calm, and tranquil mind. The quieter and more stable the breathing pattern, the more still we become in body and mind, and the deeper into inner awareness we settle. The practices of asana and pranayama are designed to balance this flow of prana in the subtle body and tame the mind.
The deeper awareness of the breath leads to conscious awareness of the energy field permeating the body and then to pure awareness itself. Seated in the source of awareness, we can see our mind and its contents more clearly and begin to align or realign our beliefs and intentions. Our deepest intentions and beliefs and our purpose in practice have an enormous power to shape all three bodies. This is why we take to heart all aspects of yoga practice from asana, diet, sleep, and lifestyle to contemplation, meditation, and studies of theory and philosophy. Let us appreciate the outermost babushka doll with awareness and the intention to discover what lies within.